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Clemson Football Season Preview: Special Teams

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Like the other units on the 2014 team, the Special Teams unit has some questions to answer this year.

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams are sometimes the most overlooked part of a game but they can often times be the most important. For example, bad special teams play cost Alabama a shot at a national title this year and good special teams play almost provided Auburn with a victory over FSU. A team can gain or lose "hidden yardage" in special teams that doesn't really show up in the box score. Clemson special teams have been hit or miss the past few years, and like the Tiger offense and defense, there are some key departures but also key returnees. Jay Ingles already wrote a great outlook earlier in the summer, so I will add on to some of what he discussed.

Field Goals

Over the past 3 seasons, Clemson could always count on Chandler Catanzaro and 3 points if the drive got within 40 yards of the end zone. After a rough freshman year, Catman was incredibly reliable over the rest of his career, hitting 53 of his 60 field goals.  He will be replaced by rising junior Ammon Lakip. Lakip hasn't been called upon much in his first two years, except in mop up duty. I'm not sure if he can match Catanzaro's consistency right off the bat. Thats not a knock on Lakip but praise for Catman, who was phenomenal (3 misses in the past 2 years.) Lakip definitely has the talent to be a solid kicker for us and has received praise from the coaching staff. We'll find out very fast if he can perform underneath the bright lights.

Punting

Bradley Pinion will be back in 2014 for his second full year as a starter. When looking at Pinion's stats, there are two different stories being told. Pinion averaged 39.4 yards per punt, which is not very good and was 91st in the nation. However, there is no way that Pinion is the 91st ranked punter in the nation. We were actually ranked 26th in the nation in terms of punting efficiency. Of his 56 punts 24 were downed inside the 20, without a single touchback. Thats impressive. Only 15 punts were returned for an average of 5.6 yards. From those stats it appears that Pinion has been instructed to go for hang time rather than distance to insure a shorter return. I would like to see his average increase if it does not have a negative effect on the small return average.

Punt Returns

Good news: We improved in 2013 from 2012! Bad news: it was still pretty bad. Clemson was ranked 9th in the ACC in yards per return and 121st in terms of efficiency nationally. Adam Humphries brought his average up to 10.6 yards on 20 returns, which isn't all that great to be honest. Outside of the South Carolina game Adam had the most consistent set of hands out of our options at punt returner. Thats why the staff put him, and Nuk Hopkins before him, back there. They have seemingly decided that the potential of a big return isn't worth the risk of a muffed punt. Thats all well and good, but our offense wasn't handed many favors by our return game. Punt returns can have a tremendous impact on the game, especially when the home team rips off a big one. Alabama in 2009 and LSU in 2011 had many a great game sparked by huge punt returns. Clemson, on the other hand, has not had a punt return touchdown in the past 64 games. 64! I believe that dates back to when we had the dynamic duo of Spiller and Ford in 2009. I appreciate the reliable fielding that Humphries brings to the table but I would like to see a more explosive player back there returning punts, someone like Mac Alexander.

Another possible reason for our failures in the return game could be poor blocking. There have been countless times where we have had to call for a fair catch because the coverage team already had the return lanes plugged up and outnumbered the blockers. With our offense most likely taking a step back in 2013, our punt return unit needs to improve dramatically.

One disturbing trend from our punt return unit has been to allow way to many fake punts to pick up first downs. We had to take timeouts a few times to get guys lined up correctly. This is inexcusable. You should not have to burn a timeout on punt return, or any facet of special teams honestly.

Kickoffs

Bradley Pinion improved in his consistency on kickoffs a little bit in 2013. But as always, there is still room for improvement. We were only 78th nationally in kickoff efficiency, which is decidedly mediocre, especially the leg talent that Pinion has. If I'm not mistaken every single kickoff he had against Georgia went into the end zone for a touchback. However, his consistency soon went by the wayside as his touchback rate was only about 50% for the rest of the season. I want to see more consistency this season, closer to 66-70% touchback rate if I had to throw out a number.

Kickoff Returns

While certainly not awful like our punt return unit was, kickoff returns were mediocre at best. We ranked 12th in the conference in terms of average yards per return and 73rd nationally in terms of efficiency. We haven't had a kickoff return touchdown in 33 games, which is since Maryland 2011 if my memory is correct. Sammy Watkins averaged only 20.9 yards per return. Kickoff returns were not his strong suit. His best returns were when he got to the edge and was able to use his excellent straight line speed in the open field. Good returners need a bit more wiggle than he had in order to navigate the mass of bodies in the middle.

Our kickoff return game, along with our punt return game, needs to improve to help out our offense and our defense. Winning the field position battle is very important and is usually indicative of the winning team. TJ Green was back there last year at times and I believe it is something he excelled at in high school. A combination of him, Mac Alexander, and one of the new wide receivers (Artavis Scott for instance) could potentially dramatically improve the return game. It would not surprise me if CJ Davidson got some time back there wither due to his speed. I would like to see our starting field position from kickoffs improve to about the 35 instead of around the 25.

Projected Starters
  • Kickoffs: Bradley Pinion
  • Punts: Bradley Pinion
  • Field Goals/ Extra Points: Ammon Lakip
  • Holder: Corbin Jenkins
  • Long Snapper: Michael Sobeski
  • Kickoff Returns: TJ Green, Mac Alexander
  • Punt Returns: Adam Humphries or Mac Alexander